Not long ago, even before the scourge of the crossover craze was upon us, preemptive eulogies for the humble hatchback were rampant. Americans have historically clung much more intently to the three-box sedan than Europeans have, after all. But one look around the compact car arena shows that the hatchback is far from dead.
Chevrolet was cued into this trend for its second-gen Cruze, which it has chosen to sell both as a sedan and a hatchback. To see if the more functional Cruze has the stuff to be spoken about in the same breath as the AUTOMOBILE All-Star-winning Civic Sport hatch, we spent a week zipping around metro Detroit and slogging through the daily commute.
It’s possible to row your own gears in a super stripped-down Cruze L or LS sedan, but if it’s the hatchback you want as well, choices narrow to two. There is the 1.6-liter diesel option for maximum enthusiast street-cred, but our tester came with the standard 1.4-liter gasoline turbo-four.
In the required LT trim, the Cruze Hatch comes with 16-inch aluminum wheels, cloth seats, a 7-inch touchscreen interface with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a USB port, a rear-view camera, 4G LTE connectivity with Wi-Fi, and Chevy’s Teen Driver safety system. Also included is the RS appearance package, which adds a sport body skit, RS badging, front fog lamps, and a rear spoiler. The only optional pack tacked on was the $850 convenience package, which adds modest upgrades like a power-operated driver’s seat, keyless entry, and heated front seats.
Compared to the boy-racer Civic Sport hatch, the Cruze Hatchback looks considerably more mature and sophisticated, even with the RS bodywork. Especially in the cool Arctic Blue color we had, the Cruze looks tasteful from every angle. It has more visual appeal than the rather plain Volkswagen Golf, and short of maybe the Mazda3, it’s the best-looking hatchback in the segment.
Unfortunately, those merits don’t carry over into the interior. Maybe it’s the beige, but the Cruze’s cabin really needs leather trim to break up the big swaths of hard plastic along the dash and on the doors. The cloth seats are alright, but the textured fabric trim on the dashboard in particular feels like a dollar-store dish towel. Definitely skip, or at least get it in black to trick your eyes into thinking it’s not there.
Not only is the Cruze Hatchback better-looking than the sedan, it’s considerably more functional. Because of the roofline, there’s slightly more headroom than in the traditional Cruze. Rear cargo capacity grows to 24.7 cu ft from the sedan’s 14.8 cu ft; with the rear seat folded, that expands to 47.2 cu ft. That’s right in line with what the Civic offers, but shy of the Golf’s total 52.7-cu ft capacity. Suffice to say that for an affordable city car, the hatchback is the way to go. Both big grocery orders and the occasional bicycle will fit without issue.
Motivation from the 153-hp engine is modest at best and there’s just enough thrust from the 177 lb-ft of torque to be passable (there’s only 2,917 lbs to move around), but the six-speed manual has the added benefit of the ability to downshift a couple of gears to make the most of the pint-sized four-pot. The transmission is itself hardly a joy to operate, compromised by its overly light clutch, vague take-up, unsatisfyingly fat shift knob, and somewhat imprecise gear engagement. Still, it’s easy enough to use, and the manual adds a level of driver involvement that we enjoy; if nothing else, it at least serves as a decent theft-deterrent. EPA numbers ring in at 28/37 mpg city/highway—more than respectable, but still shy of the Civic’s 30/39 mpg rating. Not to mention the Civic manages those numbers with 27 extra hp and a (very slightly) larger displacement.
One area where the Cruze excels is ride comfort and noise isolation. Although it lacks the confidence-inspiring handling traits of the Watts-link suspension-equipped Cruze Premier, the LT hatchback’s composure and calm over decrepit Detroit pavement is worthy of high praise. (Cruze hatchbacks stick with a twist-beam rear suspension). A big benefit is the 16-inch wheel-spec and corresponding generous sidewall, an element that also reduces road noise. Steering isn’t bad, either, although it’s a far cry from the satisfaction and feedback you get from a Mazda3, VW Golf, or Honda Civic.
At the end of the day, the Cruze Hatchback is a perfectly viable alternative to the usual suspects, and a well-executed alternative to beef up the Cruze lineup in its second generation. While we’d still lean toward the Civic Sport or a similarly equipped Mazda3 Touring, the Cruze has come a long way and is for the first time a welcome participant in this once-thought-dead hatchback conversation. And with a Hyundai Elantra GT also entering the fray, the competition is only heating up more.
2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback LT Specifications
|PRICE||$22,115/$22,695 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||1.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/153 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 177 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/37 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||175.3 x 70.5 x 57.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.4 sec|